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Mindy BelzVoices Mindy Belz

When things are profoundly wrong

Pandemic challenges to lead hurting people from despair to hope

Cultures of despair aren’t new, but the pandemic emphasizes their grip on us. Portugal is one of the latest European countries to try to legislate euthanasia, and also one of the hardest hit with COVID-19 deaths. It’s a strange time for the governing center-left Socialist Party to push physician-assisted, state-sanctioned suicide. 

Antonio Pinheiro Torres of the Portuguese Federation for Life put his finger on the despair lurking behind it. “People die badly in Portugal,” Torres told WORLD reporter Leah Hickman, because the country is poor and its national healthcare system isn’t working. “They die in a lot of pain, in a lot of suffering and so on, and so in the minds of people, giving them an injection is a kind of treatment.”

With the pandemic, I’m surprised by the number of Christians I’ve talked to who have succumbed to a parallel despair, thinking COVID-19 deaths are inevitable, yet also minimizing the toll and severity. They see little role to play in their community’s recovery because it wasn’t so bad after all. This robs them of the joy that emerging from the pandemic brings, while along the way denying others their help and nurture. These are opportunities that aren’t always so ripe: tearing down obstacles to the gospel with well-doing.

My overseas travel and daily contacts confirm that people everywhere have experienced loss, separation, and dashed expectations. How can we build on something the world is caught up in together?

The word despair in Latin means to move down from hope. It’s an active process but at its worst feels paralyzing. It’s defined by the American Psychological Association as the feeling “that things are profoundly wrong and will not change for the better” and “one of the most negative and destructive of human affects.” 

Despair may take hold of whole cultures, as in Venezuela. A government built on lies wrecks institutions and impoverishes lives, and despair is borne upon months and months of empty grocery shelves. 

It can take hold in prosperous cultures like our own. The opioid epidemic is a perfect expression of modern despair, said writer Andrew Sullivan. “Opioids are just one of the ways Americans are trying to cope with an inhuman new world where everything is flat, where communication is virtual, and where those core elements of human happiness—faith, family, community—seem to elude so many.”

For Portugal, as for others, there are concrete answers for despair. It has a significant aging population, yet palliative care—a growing specialty in the United States that minimizes pain and emphasizes comfort for the terminally ill—is lacking. Expanding its use while improving the health system generally would make euthanasia a less attractive option, Torres believes. 

But despair at its root lies in the heart. Its “affect” is best uprooted by a bigger affection. The Passion of Christ we observe at Easter has moved Christians—strapping inward conviction over sin and the crucifixion to outward joy that Christ has overcome, well, everything. Jesus took time to ready His disciples leading up to the crucifixion. 

Easter calls us to embrace a theology of readiness, answering despair with the grace Christ on the cross has shown us.

That passion through the centuries has propelled Christians to the front lines with help that’s concrete and passion-filled. This month it’s moved medical teams I know, sometimes of two, four, or 10, to war zones providing treatment for COVID-19 and other diseases, plus restoring hope. 

Tom Atema leads an organization called Heart for Lebanon that already had its hands full caring for refugees when Beirut’s port exploded last year. Faced with new victims of displacement, his team spread out to deliver meals and rebuild homes for people driven to despair in a country wracked by economic and civil strife. 

“It worries us at times when too much focus is spent on the challenges we face,” Atema wrote. “Doing so deters us from seeing the opportunities that lie ahead and the beauty of God’s work in the midst of all the obstacles we face. After all, we say that we are called to help lead people from despair to hope in Christ.”